On a piece of agricultural land measuring 188,000 square metres in Emmen in the Netherlands, Rundedal solar energy park is nearing completion, just half a year after construction began. For the next 30 years, this energy park will help the Netherlands reach its climate targets.
"We'd been searching for the right market for a while when we realised that what we were looking for was right on our doorstep," says Niels van der Linden, who heads Statkraft's solar installation and sales activities. Van der Linden and his team are based at Statkraft's office in Amsterdam.
The Netherlands is one of the countries producing the least renewable energy in Europe. In 2015, only six per cent of the country's energy production came from renewable sources. The country has no access to hydropower resources, and development of wind power has been slow, despite ambitious intentions. In recent years, however, the number of wind turbines being installed is picking up, and application of solar power is also growing.
"The Netherlands is lagging behind in its efforts to reach the EU's 14 per cent renewable energy target by 2020," says van der Linden.
"This gap has led to more subsidies being available for solar power, at the same time as the technology has become far more affordable over the past few years. That's why we're experiencing a boom in solar energy in the Netherlands right now. We were still in time to be part of this boom."
For the next 30 years, this solar park will help the Netherlands reach its climate targets.
Statkraft cancelled its first foray into solar energy in 2010, but since then both the technology and the market have matured. In 2013, van der Linden and his colleagues at the office in Amsterdam took the initiative to test out solar business models on a small scale.
"We gained a lot of knowledge from the test projects about business models for producing and selling solar energy," says van der Linden. "In 2015, we presented our business plan to Statkraft's management and board, and were granted an investment framework that has made it possible for us to continue our work on a far larger scale."
Two business models form the basis of the investment programme. One is a leasing system whereby companies lease out rooftops or unused areas to Statkraft. Statkraft installs the solar systems, and the rooftop owner has the option to consume the generated power for a fee. Further work on this and similar models is under way in Germany and India. The other model is based on Statkraft building its own solar parks at ground level and selling solar power directly into the grid, like the Amsterdam office is doing now.
"Before we found the project here in Emmen, we considered options in the UK and Turkey, but market conditions changed and made it less lucrative to pursue them," says van der Linden. "More projects are likely to come in the Netherlands, and we're also exploring other markets next year."
The construction of Rundedal solar energy park has changed the working day for the Amsterdam team.
"We come from energy and certificate trading, and are used to dealing with non-physical products and services," says van der Linden. "It's a big transition for us to work on a physical installation and all that entails of tender rounds, preparing contracts with business partners and subcontractors and – not least – health, safety and environment."
"We've hired a project manager with experience in solar energy projects to strengthen our team, which currently has five members, and we will be growing," he says. "With good support from experts in Statkraft, we have the expertise we need to realise our own solar energy parks; of course, project development is in our company's DNA."
Statkraft's project management office (PMO) has assisted in developing procedures tailored to solar activities. "It's been a comprehensive and instructive process for us in the team," says van der Linden.
Things have happened quickly in Emmen since the first turn of the shovel in July 2017. The construction phase for solar energy parks is short compared to hydropower and wind power projects.
"It's fascinating to see how the park is taking shape from one day to the next," says Bart Robrechts, project manager for Rundedal. Together with HSE manager Andrea Boccabella, he is in Emmen several days a week to follow up contractors and subcontractors. Up to 60 construction workers have been in full swing drilling, cabling, laying foundations, erecting structures and installing solar panels.
"We make use of thin-film technology and solar cells made from cadmium telluride (CdTe)," Robrechts explains. "The panels from First Solar are sensitive, and absorb sunlight we can't see. They are highly efficient, even without much sunshine."
Installing the panels is more challenging than installing conventional crystalline panels. They are as thin as glass plates and have to be held in place using special clamps.
"The panels have a voltage of 1,500 volts before the energy is converted," says Robrechts. "That makes them efficient, but also challenging. Our turnkey contractor Belectric, makes sure that the components we use can tolerate the voltage." Another challenge has been the ground conditions in Emmen. The area is one of the highest elevation points in the Netherlands, yet lies only 20 metres above sea level.
"The groundwater lies only 70 centimetres below ground level, which creates a need for sound drainage systems and presents challenges for pouring the foundations for the framework that holds the solar panels in place," says the project manager.
Once the solar park is completed, sheep from local farms will be brought in. "This is and will remain agricultural land, primarily grazing pasture for sheep," says Robrechts. "The space between the rows of panels ensures good growing conditions for grass, and the cables are specially protected to shield them from being chewed by the animals."
The local environment will also be taken care of in the construction process. Some neighbours have had concerns about the noise level generated by the central transformers. An independent survey shows that the noise level will not pose any problems.
"A large storage container is visible from the cycle path that runs through the site, and it's not exactly a pretty sight," says Robrechts. "A local artist held a drawing workshop at the neighbourhood school, and the drawings have formed the basis for a colourful decoration on the container."
"Good communication with the local community makes the job easier, in this project and in potential projects in the future," he says. "We don't rule out the possibility of developing another park in the same area."
Robrechts, van der Linden and the rest of the solar team have learned a lot of useful lessons in the course of realising Rundedal solar park.
"We've endeavoured to carry out the project 'The Statkraft Way', but because we've never built a solar energy park on this scale before, we have no precedent to go by," says Robrechts, who is clear about the high value of the expertise that has been accumulated during the project period.
"Next time it will be easier!"
Text: Jenny Bull Tuhus
Photo: Ole Martin Wold
The article has also been published in Statkraft's magazine People & Power no. 2/2017.
19. Dec. 2017